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Un-Netting Trade in Endangered Species: eBay Vows Crackdown on Illegal Ivory Sales

Animal rights activists charge the online site has failed to stop Internet sales of endangered animal parts
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Courtesy of iStockphoto; Copyright: Scott Hirko

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) today issued a new report charging that users of eBay.com are behind two thirds of the online trade in endangered animals worldwide, specifically, ivory made from tusks ripped from poached elephants. The report comes just months after IFAW accused eBay, Inc., of failing to clamp down on the illegal animal sales and a day after the San Jose, Calif., company announced a global ban on the sale of most types of ivory (with the exception of "antique" items made before 1900 that contain small bits of ivory, such as antique piano keys or tables with ivory inlay).

EBay in June 2007 had agreed to remove any ivory products from its site that offered international shipping, and alerted sellers that they could only sell ivory in their own countries if it was legal to do so and, in some cases, only after getting government approval. Richard Brewer-Hay, an eBay spokesperson, said that move was an attempt to "balance the protection of endangered and protected species while also providing a way for sellers to offer legitimate ivory products legally allowed for sale within domestic markets."

But he now admits the policy did not go far enough—and was almost impossible to enforce.

"We simply can't ensure that ivory listed for sale on eBay is in compliance with the complex regulations that govern its sale," he wrote on his blog last night announcing the new, more comprehensive ban. "Global demand for ivory has long been a significant factor in the poaching of African and Asian elephants, driving these species towards extinction—to such a degree that both types of elephants are now considered endangered or protected species."

IFAW says it tracked more than 7,000 wildlife product listings on 183 Web sites in 11 countries in compiling its report. Ivory obtained from elephants dominated the investigation, comprising 73 percent of all Internet listing tracked by IFAW investigators.

The $20-billion wildlife black market contributes to the deaths of animals and park rangers worldwide, Barbara Cartwright, IFAW Canada campaigns manager, said at a press conference today held in San Francisco to release the report, entitled, "Killing with Keystrokes: An Investigation of the Illegal Wildlife Trade on the World Wide Web." The organization found that eBay sites in six countries were selling endangered wildlife products, including elephant ivory and hides, turtle shells, and skins from leopards, cheetahs, ocelots, lizards and crocodiles; two thirds of all endangered species products listed on eBay had U.S. sellers.

IFAW says it compiled these statistics by visiting public Web sites. (They did not investigate password-protected sites or chat rooms.) Cartwright said that even though IFAW's estimates are conservative, "you will find these numbers shocking."

IFAW is hoping that eBay's ban will help law enforcement officers identify and stop illegal animal trading. Still, Jeff Flocken, director of IFAW's Washington, D.C., office, conceded at the press conference that the online marketplace is "ungovernable" by one entity and that eBay cannot end the illegal trade without the help of law enforcers, buyers and sellers.

Although it remains to be seen whether eBay can effectively police its users, the company does keep a running blotter on eBay.com chronicling its efforts to help law enforcement catch people who use the site for illegal transactions, including selling counterfeit items, peddling illegal drugs or fencing stolen goods.

EBay has already banned the sale of bullets, guns and pornography on its site and plans to crack down on endangered animal sales with the help of software filters that flag words such as "ivory" and prevent sellers from posting listings of illegal items, Cartwright said. The company will also have go through its existing listings and clean out any that include illegal ivory and other illegal animal products.

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